Statement by People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism [P.A.D.S]
On 5th March a man was dragged out of the Central Prison in Dimapur in Nagaland by a mob. He was paraded naked on the streets of the town for hours while the crowd beat him up, took pictures and uploaded them on the internet. After seven kilometers of public torture he was tied to the City Clock Tower in the center of the town and beaten to death. Nine days ago, the man was accused of raping a Naga college student, and was arrested for that. The crime became the news of the town a week later. A demonstration by Naga Students’ Federation was held on 4th March against the rape. In public discourse the man, actually a Bengali speaking Assamese Muslim from the Cachhar region, became an IBI (illegal Bangladeshi immigrant) because of his religion and language. One prominent newspaper headlined the news with ’IBI rapes woman in DMU’ on its front page. Naga civil society organisations brought out statements calling for justice, but also detailing the menace of IBIs in the state, and how they would take over Nagaland if Nagas do not stand up against the crime. Demands were made to hand over the man to the community to be tried under customary Naga laws. Photocopies of the man’s picture were widely distributed. Blogs were filled with aggressive comments. When the moderator of one blog stopped putting up angry comments, another one by the name Naga Spears came along to keep the cyber fire burning.
It is not for the first time in the Indian sub-continent that crowds of citizens, otherwise ordinary in every sense, have brutally killed unarmed human beings. Communal riots of 1947 were perhaps the worst in human history. In independent India instances of unimaginable savagery abound as in Nellie 1983, Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002. The immediate context of these killings were different from each other, but they were all done in the name of some community interest, or its corollary, for teaching a community a lesson.
The allegation of rape was only a trigger for the lynching in Dimapur. Gnawing divides along community boundaries are a regular source of suspicion and every day forms of violence all over the North-East. Illegal Bangladeshi immigrant is a convenient label used against Bengali speaking Muslims, most of whom had actually migrated before independence to riverine areas, and are as much of Indian citizens as anyone else. Along with Adivasi Tea Tribes they are among the poorest in the North East. From Bodo areas in the lower Assam to the international border with Myanmar they are a regular target of xenophobic and communal politics. During an election rally for the current Lok Sabha Mr Modi had famously declared that all illegal migrants from Bangladesh will be sent back as soon as BJP government is formed. In other parts of India too the bogey of illegal Bangladeshi immigrant is a convenient ploy for communalism and xenophobia. Apparently, during the time of BJP government in Delhi, police stations in the city were given monthly quotas to ’catch’ and deport poorer Bengali speaking Muslims who are mostly rag pickers and have valid documents. Even people who may not be communal otherwise, turn ultra nationalist on the issue of supposed migration from Bangladesh. It is not difficult to imagine the reaction in the country if the person killed by the mob in Dimapur had actually been a Bangladeshi.
In many parts of the Norht-East including Nagaland political struggles against the Indian state have been on for more than five decades. The political landscape here is littered with armed ethnic mobilisations which have slid from collective grievances of oppressed communities to random and targeted killings of ’outsiders’. Such mobilisations also act to curtail the democratic rights of those internally oppressed within the community, most commonly women. These struggles may have legitimate reasons, but no one has a right to kill an unarmed human being, irrespective of whether he/she is an accused, or is an illegal immigrant.
Aggressive mobilisations around proclaimed community interests and assault on democratic rights of citizens is common in the so called mainland India too. This type of politics has specially spread along with the rise of Mr Modi in the national politics. The loudest are the Hindutva organisations that claim to represent the interests of the so called Hindu majority. While many thousands of minority citizens have been displaced and killed in riots, and their places of worship attacked, Hindutva forces have attacked the rights of all citizens to read books they like, see movies they wish to see, spend time with persons they like, eat what they like, and discuss and debate issues related to their lives. The latest in the series of attacks is the one on a Tamil TV channel for holding a discussion on the practice of wearing a Thali (Mangalsutra) by married women even if they are abused by their husbands. Staff of the channel were attacked and its offices bombed on 12th March. The erstwhile oppressed caste communities too have taken to this style of politics. The regionally dominant Vellala Gounders of Kongu area in Tamil Nadu have successfully attacked and silenced author Perumal Murugan. Groups claiming to defend Islam have bayed for the blood of editor Shireen Dalvi in Mumbai for printing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon in her newspaper. A common thread running through all these actions is the excuse of hurt sentiments. The state has either stood as a mute spectator, or supported attackers. It is a travesty of justice that the right to a ’sentiment’ has become more valuable than the right to free life, rational thinking, and expression without fear.
People turning public killers and attacking civil rights of others is a challenge to any idea of democracy that seeks justification through the notion of popular sovereignty. Between the people as a general abstraction, who give themselves a Constitution, and rights bearing individual citizens, is the domain of public life in which many Indians identify themselves with their communities. Communities seek allegiance through calls to a shared tradition, a way of life, and a common future. Those who speak in the name of communities seek legitimation by claiming to represent a demand endorsed by most members of the community. Democracy in our country appears to have a dual relationship with communities. On the one hand it has diminished the hold of traditional community leaders. On the other, it permits and encourages an articulation of community based demands and actions in the name of popular interest by a new and competitive breed of leadership.
Many common misunderstandings about democracy facilitate the spread of community based anti-democratic politics. Foremost among these is equating democracy with the majority rule. It makes democracy a game of numbers. Majority in the formal sense is simply a result of counting. It can be an important measure of popular mood and thinking, however it is well understood that certain crucial aspects of public life can not be at the mercy of majority. Even constitutions can not be amended by a simple majority. The people at the base of popular sovereignty are not passive members of a collection, significant only for counting. The people becomes a justified political basis of rule because humans constituting it are rights bearing citizens. No authority, even while enjoying the support of the overwhelming majority of people can violate these rights of even a single citizen. Whether Mr Khan of Dimapur was guilty, or if guilty what punishment he should have faced, can not be determined on the basis of any majority decision. Along with the devaluation of democracy as majority rule comes the degradation of citizenship. The most common practice in this regard in India is to view citizens only as members of communities. Thus a person who happens to be a Muslim, gets recognised only as a Muslim; as if her caste, gender, language, economic status, political commitments, personal beliefs and achievements are of no consequence. Discussions on secularism have been stymied by a majority-minority framework, which looks at it solely in terms of protection of the so called minority rights.
While community politics creates unbridgeable walls between citizens, the fluidity of opportunities under modernity generates another world outside communities. The man killed by the Naga mob in Dimapur was actually married to a Naga woman. Their girl child, half Naga-half Cachharree Muslim, and hence neither Naga, nor Cachharee Muslim, faces an uncertain future. It depends crucially on the future of democracy in the country whether she spends her life in trauma in the barrenness of no-man’s land between communities, or she grows up to live full life of a citizen without fear, hatred and suspicion.
This story first appeared on sanhati.com